The Pilgrims Settlement

            “The toils we bore

            Your ease have wrought;

            We sowed in tears,

            In joy you reap.

            That birthright we so clearly bought,

            Here guard, till you with us shall sleep.”


            The departure of the Mayflower upon her return trip to England in the spring of 1621, which meant for the Pilgrims the breaking of the last remaining link which bound them to the old world, saw them actively at work building up a settlement in the new.

            Plymouth Harbor is protected upon one side by a natural sea wall of sand which is known as Plymouth Beach, and upon the other by another sea wall,. Somewhat similar, so that the harbor is fully guarded from the part of Massachusetts Bay known as Cape Cod Bay.  Between these two extended and sheltering arms the Mayflower had found a safe anchorage as she had passed the point of Duxbury Beach known as the “Gurnet.”  Just inside the Gurnet is Clark’s Island, upon which one of the band of exploring Pilgrims landed one Sunday and gave thanks to god for His guidance.  Across Cape cod Bay, upon clear days, it is possible to see the tall granite monument at Province town, at the extreme end of Cape Co, which was build in 1912 to commemorate the first Landing of the Pilgrims.

The Beginnings of the Colony 

            The topography of Plymouth itself is easily described.  Near the Rock which lay a the water’s edge, there emptied a little stream which is still known as Town Brook; just ahead was the rather slight eminence which soon became known as Cole’s Hill, and farther along was the steeper height which is even yet called Burial Hill, and which was the place mentioned on another page where the Pilgrims “pointed to make a platform and plant their ordnance,” while not far away there is at least one of the “many delicate springs of as good water as can be drunk.”

            With the settlement of any town which is being made from a virgin wilderness, the first thing to do is obviously to lay out a street; so leading directly from the harbor, up toward Burial Hill, the settlers staked out what was known as first Street, but later on changed to Leyden Street, in memory, no doubt, of the hospitable town in Holland from which they had come.  Along First Street, upon both sides, thee were laid out lots which were distributed among the different families, the lots upon the left, as one leaves the harbor, extending down to the edges of Town Brook.  These lots were originally called “meersteads.”

            Mourt’s Relation supplies and interesting record;

“Thursday, the 28th (old style) of December, so many as could went ot work on the hill, where we proposed to build our platform for our ordnance, and which doth command all the plain and the bay, and from whence we may see far into the sea, and might be easier impaled, having two rows of houses and a fair street.  Son in the afternoon we went to measure out the grounds; and first we took notice how many families there were, willing all single men that had no wives to join with some family, as they thought fit, so that we might build fewer houses; which done, and we reduced them to 19 families.  To greater families we allotted larger plots; to every person half a pole in breadth and 3 in length, and so lots were cast where every man should lie; which was done and staked out.”  This was the beginning of what is now Leyden Street, and in old records of Plymouth which are kept at the Registry of Deeds, and described more fully in another chapter, there may still be seen a rough map of the original survey where each lot is marked with the name of one of the Pilgrim families.  The plot “allotted” to Governor Bradford is shown as fully four times the size of any of the others, perhaps as recognition of his exalted position.

The Common House 

            The first structure to be built, the “Common House,” was apparently built before the entire company left the Mayflower; as its name implies, it was a general shelter and intended to be used only until a house could be build for each family on its plot.  All of these early Pilgrim buildings, if one may accept the testimony of old drawings and pictures of various sorts, were very much alike, differing only in size.  They were made of logs which were had from trees felled in the nearest forest, and the spaces between the logs were filled with clay, which was perhaps made into a form which somewhat resembled plaster; the floors of the houses were also of logs, made as nearly smooth as possible, and the roofs were of thatch.  Even the Common House and the Old Fort were of this description, though larger than the houses occupied by the “19 families.”

The First Year in Plymouth 

            It soon became evident, however, that any hardships and privations which had be endured by the Pilgrims during the voyage from England, or upon the Mayflower as she lay in Cape Cod Bay, were merely the beginning of the many trials which were to come to them.  There was, first of all, the scarcity of food, for although the forests supplied game, and the water of Cape Cod Bay then, as now, abounded in fish of various kinds, it took months to raise corn from which to make bread, and food of other kinds which they had brought from England had either run dangerously low or was wholly exhausted.

            Infinitely worse than the trials which came to them in other forms was the great loss which came by reasons of the deaths of so many of the little company.  The disease known as scurvy, which for ages has been the bane of armies and emigrants, and also of people in other classes, broke out no long after the Pilgrims had reached America.  This disease is said to be the result of lack of sufficient food, and particularly of lack of proper sanitation.  In the early Pilgrim records there appears abundant evidence of the small amount of food available during he Mayflower voyage and for some time thereafter.  It is not difficult to picture the conditions, both on shipboard and in Plymouth, which were the result of overcrowding so large a company into such small spaces as the Mayflower’s bunks and cabin, or the Common House afforded.

            Due to the ravages of this disease, fully one-half of the Pilgrims died during their first winter in Plymouth.  The old chronicles say that with so many deaths, and the constant progress of the disease, here were at times scarcely enough left to bury the dead and nurse the sick.  Early days in Plymouth, and particularly the hardships and sufferings of the Pilgrims during their first winter in the colony have been vividly described by a number of early writers.  After telling of some of their vicissitudes during the voyage of the Mayflower to America, and even after the arrival of the vessel in Cape Cod Bay, one narrator goes to tell of the rapid dwindling of the number of the Pilgrims.  During March “13 of our company – the greatest part in the depth of winter, wanting houses and other comforts, being afflicted with the scurvy and other diseases which their long voyage and unaccommodating condition brought upon them, so that there die sometimes 2 or 3 a day.  Of 100 persons scarce 50 remaining, the living scarce able to bury the dead; the well not sufficient to tend the sick this being their time of greatest distress, but 6 or 7, who space no pains to help them.”

Cole’s Hill 

            Burials were many on Cole’s Hill, near the Rock, but little evidence of the actual conditions was allowed to appear.  The graves of the Pilgrims were hastily leveled and left unmarked, that the Indians, noting the rapidly growing number of mounds, might not guess the corresponding dwindling in the number of the colonists – “lest they should count the graves, and see how many already have perished.”  These early Pilgrim graves, being unmarked, were quickly lost, and several times during the past three centuries necessary excavations on Cole’s Hill, or even washing away portions of the bank by heavy rains, have brought to view the poor bones of these brave pioneers.


            “Each in his narrow cell forever laid,

            The … Forefathers of the hamlet sleep.”

Relations with the Indians 

            While hostilities with the Indians seemed often about to break out, no important trouble from that source was experienced during the earliest days.  Various treaties were made at different times with the chiefs, and the Pilgrims well knew the necessity of propitiating and dealing fairly with these important and powerful neighbors.  Perhaps, too, the fact that the Pilgrims well understood the value of “preparedness” had much to do with their living in peace, for while hoping for the best, the early Governors fully believed in being prepared for the worst.  The Old Fort on Burial Hill, among the first of the buildings erected in Plymouth, was not intended to be merely an ornament, and the men of Plymouth were well trained in the methods of defense, should necessity for their use arise.

            “When they met for service on the Sundays or holidays they assembled by beat of drum, each with musket or firelock, in front of the Captain’s door.  Then in order, three abreast, led by a Sergeant and without drum beat, they march up the hill to the Fort.  Behind come the Governor, on his right the Preacher with his cloak and on his left the Captain with his side arms.  And they are constantly on guard, day and night.”   Even the prayers of eh Pilgrims were said with their ears ready for the war-whoop of the Indians, and with their muskets within easy reach.

            In addition to the Fort which was built during the early Plymouth days upon Burial Hill, a brick Watch Tower was built in 1643, probably because from a tower built upon an eminence as lofty as the Hill the country could be surveyed for many miles in every direction.  In the records of Plymouth, on September 23, 1643, it is noted:  “It is agreed upon the whole that there shall be a watch house forthwith, built by brick, and that Mr. Grimes will sell us the brick at eleven shillings a thousand.”  No earlier mention of the use of brickyards and kilns were being introduced; the Pilgrims were no doubt accustomed to the use of brick as a building material, for during centuries it had been much used in England, while in Holland it had been for ages – and is today – one of the chief materials for building.  Whiles this brick “watch house” has long ago disappeared, its brick foundations still exist upon Burial Hill, a foot or two below the surface, and not far away is the hearthstone upon which the Pilgrims built their watch fires.

            Another structure of defense was built upon Burial Hill in 1676, this being a fortification “with palisades ten and one-half feet high, with 3 pieces of ordnance planted on it.”

With Nathaniel Southworth a contract was made to build a watch house “16 feet in length, 12 feet in breadth, and 8 feet stud, to be walled with boards, and to have 2 floors, the upper floor to be 6 feet above the tower, to batten the walls and make a small pair of stairs in it,  the roof to be covered with shingles, and a chimney to be built in it.  For the said work he is to have 8 pounds, either in money or other pay equivalent.”  Some historians think that this latter watch tower of wood was a sort of super-structure built upon the brick watch tower which has just been described, and which in 1676 would have been 33 years old – not too old, surely, to have been still useful.

            When war with the powerful Narragansett tribe once seemed certain, their chief sent messengers to Governor Bradford bearing a rattlesnake skin wrapped about a bunch of arrows.  Friendly Indians interpreted the message for the Pilgrims as signifying a declaration of war.  The messengers from the Narragansett’s were sent back by the Governor of Plymouth Colony with the same rattlesnake skin filled with gunpowder and ball.  Thus was answered a threat of a breach of the public peace; a prompt acceptance of a challenge from lawlessness, such as later Governors in Massachusetts have not been slow to follow.

            During the first year of their occupation of Plymouth the leaders of the colony entered into a treaty with the neighboring tribe of the Wampanoag’s, who were represented by their sachem Massasoit,  and the treaty was kept faithfully for more than half a century.  Not until “King Philip,” the son and successor of Massasoit, went upon the warpath, did the Indians of Massachusetts Bay commit any serious depredation at Plymouth.

Plymouth after Seven Years 

            Some years later – in 1627 – Isaac DeRaiseres, an officer belonging to the Dutch colony, New Amsterdam (New York) paid a visit to Plymouth and found a settlement which agrees well with what one might expect to see after a period of seven years of development.  In a letter to Holland the visitor thus describes Plymouth at that time:

            “New Plymouth lies in the slope of a hill stretching east toward the sea coast, with a broad street about a cannon shot of 800 (yards) long, leading down the hill, with a (street) crossing in the middle.  The houses are constructed of hewn planks, with gardens also enclosed behind and at the sides with hewn planks, so that their houses and courtyards are arranged in a very good order, with stockade against a sudden attack; and at the end of the street are 3 wooden gates.  In the center, on the cross street, stands the governor’s house, before which is a square enclosure, upon which 4 patereros are mounted, so as to flank along the streets.  Upon the hill they have a large square house, with a flat roof, made of thick sawn planks, stayed with oak beams, upon the top of which they have 6 cannons, which shoot iron balls of 4 and 5 pounds, and command the surrounding country.”

            Such was Plymouth after seven years of labor by the small remnant of the Mayflower Company which survived the hardships of the first winter upon the bleak shores of Cape Cod Bay.  The Mayflower made other later trips and brought other colonists from England, and doubtless from the small congregation which the Pilgrims left behind at Leyden, in Holland.  The little colony grew slowly, but steadily perhaps, and later became a part of Massachusetts, which at still later date became the beginning of the State of Massachusetts as it is today.